It’s hard to describe a peculiar soap opera phenomenon that gripped the US back in the late ‘60s. From Monday to Friday, one could visit the glamorously doomed Collins family. Their aristocratic lineage traced back to the Old World. Their lonely mansion, built on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, seemed to beckon eastward over the sea, yearning for Europe.
The show’s plot was primarily set at Collinwood, a mansion full of secrets, haunted by the ghosts and vampires of another century. My sister and I would dash home from elementary school just to watch Dark Shadows. The show was so weirdly addictive that even today it’s difficult to explain the strange hold that it had over us.
With such a rich property, director Tim Burton’s adaptation of Dark Shadows is a “can’t miss” film that’s both spooky and fun. Burton’s filmography already includes macabre gems like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Sleepy Hollow. Like The Brady Bunch Movie, Burton takes satiric relish in updating an iconic television show.
Set in 1972, the film begins as Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is liberated from the grave after 200 years. From the outset, Burton’s attention to detail is pitch-perfect, from ‘70s Day-Glo décor down to Barnabas’ wolf’s head walking stick.
When he returns to Collinwood, Barnabas tries to bond with his descendants. After listening to ‘70s rock, he serenades the 15-year-old Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), a Lolita-like siren.
Barnabas: I’m a picker, and a grinner…I’m a lover and a sinner.
Carolyn: You’re an idiot.
Depp’s deadpan Barnabas is wildly funny and the first 90 minutes of the film is deliriously inspired. When Karen Carpenter sings on a television variety show, Barnabas picks up the set and shakes it. “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!”
Eva Green is equally wonderful as Angelique. the witch who turned Barnabas into a vampire after a broken romance. In the scene below, the two rivals meet again.
Barnabas: Harlot of Beelzebub! Succubus of Satan!
Angelique: I’ve missed you, Barnabas. No one talks like that anymore.
She quickly seduces him, and the crash-bump sex romp between Barnabas and Angelique is bawdy fun.
Barnabas: That was a regrettable turn of events.
Angelique: You didn’t seem to regret it.
In order to raise the family’s profile, Barnabas throws a coming-out bash at Collinwood. With the prompting of Carolyn, he books Alice Cooper for the party. The film reaches its sublime peak early, as Cooper magically conjures his old ‘70s self in a thrilling rendition of “The Ballad of Dwight Fry”, with Carolyn sharing the microphone. With Jonathan Frid’s cameo as a party guest, the film achieves a lunatic greatness.
Burton’s musical choices blend seamlessly into the film, including Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” and the Raspberries “Go All the Way” (covered by The Killers).
At this point, Dark Shadows is simply terrific. Yet for the final 30 minutes, Burton inexplicably abandons satire and the story becomes frightfully earnest.
The Collins family tries to recover their old fishery business from Angelique’s control. As the plotline shifts to a horror-revenge fantasy, the film’s pace slows to a death crawl. The climatic showdown between Barnabas and Angelique, complete with a deus ex machina, appears to be spliced from a completely separate and inferior film.
I’m not sure why this plot shift occurs. It seems that Burton lost his nerve and wanted to avoid a complete send up of a beloved cult classic. What made The Brady Bunch Movie so funny and memorable is that director Betty Thomas clearly loved the show. Her satire paid homage to the Brady family and made them relevant again.
Burton had the same opportunity here with the Collins family, but he stepped away from that risky path and took the easy way out. The result is a wonderful 90 minutes of fun coupled with 30 minutes of play-it-safe.
Dark Shadows ends with a lovely, eerie denouement, and when the credits roll, one wonders about the lost opportunity here. Burton had a film with great potential but settled for less.
The Blu-ray video transfer of Dark Shadows highlights deep blacks and beautifully saturated colors, and the soundtrack is superb. Extras include deleted scenes and nine behind-the-scenes ‘focus points’, which is similar to a ‘making of feature’ divided into several chapters. The Blu-ray version also includes the DVD of the film on a separate disk.